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Portrait from the cover of Leonardo da Vinci, written by Sherwin B. Nuland (Penguin Lives series), Lipper/Viking/Penguin (2000)

The Religious Affiliation of Artist, Inventor, Scientist
Leonardo da Vinci


As were most of his fellow Italian citizens at the time, Leonardo da Vinci was a Catholic. Leonardo was an immensely talented artist, inventor and scientist. Based on his own writing and the firsthand accounts of those who knew him, Leonardo da Vinci was also a deeply moral individual who strived to live ethically and believed strongly in the importance of self-mastery.

From: Sherwin B. Nuland, Leonardo da Vinci (A Penguin Life), Lipper/Viking/Penguin Putnam Inc.: New York City, NY (2000), page 12:

One day... of 1452, a prosperous eighty-year-old landowner set down a few details of a recent notable event in his family: "A grandson of mine was born, son of Ser Piero my son, on April 15... His name was Lionardo." There follow the name of the priest who baptized the little boy and a lit of ten people present at the ceremony.


The Last Supper, painted by Leonardo da Vinci
Nuland, page 49:
...during the Milan period their [Leonardo's artistic philosophies] apogee was reached with the painting of The Last Supper, commissioned by Ludovico and the Dominican friars for the refectory wall of the Church of Santa Maria della Grazie.

The painting's instant is one of the most momentous in Christian scripture. As quietly as they may have been spoken, the prophetic words, "Verily I say unto you that one of you shall betray me" have just exploded on the apostles like a sudden clap of thunder. The dramatic intensity of this moment tells more than many feet of motion picture film ever could. Each of the men at the table reveals himself in an instantaneous psychological portrait that seems to betray his thoughts and even those thoughts that will come later. Though they share the response of surprise, each responds to his own surprise in a way that is his alone. As Leonardo wrote, "That figure is most praiseworthy which, by its actions, expresses the passions of the soul." We know every one of these individuals though we have never seen any of them before. No matter how vast and repeated a reading of scripture has preceded the seeing of this great painting, every apostle will henceforth live in the viewer's senses in a way previously unimagined. Is it any wonder that Kenneth Clark calls The Last Supper "the keystone of European art"?

Nuland, pages 99-100:
Vasari describes Leonardo's final months, no doubt from details given to him when he visited Melzi many years later, probably in 1566: "Finally, being old, he lay sick for many months. When he found himself near death he made every effort to acquaint himself with the doctrine of Catholic ritual." Notwithstanding his belief in God and in the existence of the soul, it was a ritual -- and indeed an entire formalized religion -- from which he had in general kept himself separated, "holding lightly by other men's beliefs, seeing philosophy above Christianity," as Pater put it. No wonder he needed to "acquaint himself with the doctrine," as the end of his life approached.

On Easter eve 1519, Leonardo made his will, leaving all his notebooks to Melzi and arranging for masses to be said at three different churches, as though in a final scattering of his heritage, an act symbolic of the dispersion of his talents. He died on May 2, having received the sacraments of the Church with so many of whose teachings on the history and character of the natural world he had disagreed.

And as for his soul -- we can only guess where it went, but we do have Leonardo's reflections to consider. He believed that the soul depends on the body for its activities. In embryonic development, he wrote, the body "in due time awakens the soul that is to inhabit it." And elsewhere, "every part is designed to unite with its whole, that it may escape from its imperfections. The soul desires to dwell in the body because without the body it can neither act nor feel." In this mechanistic model, the soul cannot function when the body dies. Perhaps it, too, dies. Whether or not this is true, none of will ever know while we still breathe.

Nuland, pages 105-107:
...it [is] possible that Leonardo did indeed deliberately record his thoughts in such a way that they would be indecipherable to any but those so determined to understand them as to be willing to devote long hours to the process. Vasari wrote that [Leonardo] had been a heretic, and more a philosopher than a Christian; some must have thought him a crypto-atheist; not a few of his notions were far from those of the Church [at that time]. This is the man, it will be recalled, who wrote, long before Galileo was accused, "The sun does not move." And this is the man who also saw evidence everywhere, whether in the form of fossils, rock formations, or the movements of water, of the great age of the earth and of the constantly changing character of its geologic and living forms. Not until the studies of Charles Lyell early in the nineteenth century would there again be encountered a scholar who theorized with such clarity that the characteristics of the earth's surface are the result of processes taking place over enormously long periods of geological time...

It was unpredictable nature that Leonardo saw as the creator of the ever-changing wonders of the earth, and he did not hesitate to say so: "Nature, being inconstant and taking pleasure in creating and continually producing new forms, because she knows that her terrestrial materials are thereby augmented, is more ready and more swift in her creating than is time in his destruction." There is no mention here of God, and certainly no room for the biblical Creation story. Regardless of my own conviction [that Leonardo did not intend to write indecipherably, but simply wrote quickly in a sort of shorthand scrawl in an attempt to keep up with his rapid flow of ideas], perhaps considerations like these should be factored into any theory attempting to understand the totality of why Leonardo should have chosen to write so inaccessibly. The dangers of easily discovered heresy in that Church-dominated time cannot be underestimated, as we know all too well from the treatment not only of Galileo, but of others too, who dared to question doctrine.

Nuland, page 113:
After Leonardo had been buried in the cloister of the Church of St. Florentin at Amboise his will was read...
Nuland, page 13:
We know that Lionardo -- or Leonardo -- was a love child, a delicate term with implications of a grand passion which in reality was more likely to have been lust than romance. His mother was a girl of the town of Vinci or a neighboring community. Almost nothing of her is known beyond her name, Caterina...
Nuland, page 14:
Shortly after his illegitimate son's birth [i.e., shortly after the birth of Leonardo], the twenty-five-year-old Ser Piero [Leonardo's father] married a woman of good family, Albiera di Giovanni Amadori, with whom he was unable to have children. It is the contention of several biographers that after some five years of frustrating childlessness, the couple brought little Leonardo to live with them in Vinci, where the kindly Albiera treated the boy as though he were her own. He would thus, for the most formative years of his personality development, have been the adored only child of the devoted and perhaps over-loving Caterina [his biological mother]. During those first five years, if this construction is correct, he was also essentially without a father.
Nuland, pages 17-18:
There is no indication that Leonardo ever engaged in overt sexual activity of any sort, whether one seeks it in his manuscripts or in the testimony of those who have left recollections of him. It is Freud's contention that he was one of those rare individuals whose "libido withdraws from the fate of the repression by being sublimated from the outset into curiosity, and by reinforcing the powerful investigation impulse [which would otherwise be directed toward sexual curiosity]. . . . The investigation becomes to some extent compulsive and substitutive of the sexual activity. . . . The subjection of the original complexes... and the impulse can freely put itself in the service of intellectual interest. To the sexual repression which made it so strong by contributing sublimated libido to it, it pays homage by avoiding all occupation with sexual themes."

Thus, in a few sentences, is Freud's explanation for the origins of Leonardo's genius and the extraordinary range of his accomplishments. Briefly, the repressed sexual impulse was sublimated into curiosity and intellectual investigation. The entire energy of the libido, which is meant to be focused on one or another love object, was instead focused on his work. All of us... sublimate libido to a greater or lesser extent, but for Freud's Leonardo the sublimation was total. Leonardo may have intuited the validity of that formulation. On a page of the volume of his writings that scholars have brought together as the Codex Atlanticus, the following is to be found: "Intellectual passion drives out sensuality."

Nuland, page 19:
...there is no indication that [Leonardo] ever functioned sexually. We are left with the formulation that Leonardo was a homosexual who repressed his sex drive by sublimating hi libido into a vastness of accomplishment. If we remove the currently abused name of Freud from the equation, we arrive at a distinctly reasonable explanation for his genius. Add the sublimation to an obviously great intellect and we may be seeing the Leonardo both of embellished Freudian legend and of reality.
Nuland, pages 28-29:
Florence was then ruled by the Medici, a family that knew well how to retain power, including the old practice of encouraging citizens to inform on one another at the smallest hint of possible impropriety. Thus it was that Leonardo and three companions were charged in 1476 with sodomy involving seventeen-year-old Jacopo Saltarelli, well known in the city a male prostitute. After two hearings, the charges were finally dismissed in June of that year, for insufficient evidence... Leonardo's guilt [is something that] virtually all biographers doubt. This episode is the only hint of sexual activity by Leonardo, and those who have been the most painstaking students of his life assume it never happened. The charges may have resulted from malice, gossip, or thin air...
Nuland, page 30:
Even when young, Leonardo was a moralist. There is no reason to doubt his sincerity when he made certain statements suggesting that his sexual life was nonexistent, whether by unconscious repression -- as Freud asserts -- or conscious choice. Are the following sentences the words of a man to whom the temptations of the flesh are not temptations at all, or were they written by one fighting so hard against his sexuality that he must constantly be on guard lest it overwhelm him? There is no way to know:
[Leonardo wrote:] Whoso curbs not lustful desires puts himself on a level with the beasts. One can have no greater and no lesser mastery than that which one has over one's self. . . . It is easier to resist at the beginning than at the end.
Like so much else in the Leonardo legend, these sentences can be interpreted to fit any of several preconceptions, that they are nevertheless of a piece with the image of a man who, whether consciously or not, denies himself the expression of insistent sexuality.
Nuland, page 54-55:
The eye was of particular importance to [Leonardo], not only as an object of study in itself but because it was the means by which all visible phenomena are brought into the mind. "The eye," he wrote, "which is called the window of the soul, is the principal means by which the central sense can most completely and abundantly appreciate the infinite works of nature." It should not go unnoticed that he referred not, as virtually every other man of his time would have, to "the infinite works of God," but to those of nature. That which was of God, he left to the clergy; that which was of nature, he took to be in his domain. It was a statement worthy of a twenty-first-century researcher.
From: Liana Bortolon (translated by C. J. Richards), The Life & Times of Leonardo, Arnoldo Mondadori Editore/The Curtis Publishing Company: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1967), page 75:
1452 - April 15: Born in Archiano, near Vinci, to Piero d'Antonio da Vinci and to Caterina di Piero.

1466 - Moves to Florence with his family and enters the shop of Andrea Verrocchio.

1472 - Joins the Florentine Guild of Artists. Paints the angel at the left in Verrocchio's "Baptism of Christ."

1473 - August 5: First dated drawing of Leonardo.

1478 - Commissioned to do an altarpiece for the Chapel of St. Bernard in the Signory Palace.

1481 - Commissioned to do an altarpiece for the Church of the Monks of San Donato at Scopeto, near Florence. This is the "Adoration of the Magi," which is to remain unfinished.

1482 - Moves to Milan and offers his services to Ludovico il Moro, the ruler of the city, introducing himself as engineer, architect, sculptor and painter.

1483 - Signs a contract, with the De Predis brothers, painters in Milan, for an altarpiece for the Fraternity of the Conception in San Francesco Grande.

1485 - Ludovico il Moro orders a painting as a gift for the King of Hungary, Mattia Corvino.

1487 - Prepares a number of projects for the dome of the Milan Cathedral and makes a wooden model of it.

1490 - January 13: The. Paradise Festival, with scenery and costumes by Leonardo, is presented upon the occasion of the marriage of Isabella of Aragon with Gian Galeazzo Sforza at the Castle of the Sforzas. Summoned to Pavia, along with Francesco di Giorgio and Amadeo, for the planning of the cathedral of this city. July: takes Salaino under his protection.

1491 - Prepares a tournament at the request of Galeazzo Sanseverino, for the marriage of Ludovico il Moro with Beatrice d'Este.

1492 - Model of the monument to Francesco Sforza exhibited in Milan. According to documents of the period, he is in Rome during this year.

1495 - Begins work on "The Last Supper" in the refectory of the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, a work which is to be finished about four years later. Paints the portrait of Cecilia Gallerani which is known as the "Lady with an Ermine." In the same year he attends a meeting of architects convening in Florence to plan the Council Hall of the Signory Palace.

1498 - Decorates the ceiling of the Sala delle Assi in the Sforza Castle in Milan.

1499 - After the flight of Ludovico il Moro, he too leaves Milan, occupied by the troops of Louis XII, and moves to Florence.

1500 - January - February, sojourn in Mantua at the court of Isabella d'Este, where he does a charcoal drawing of her. In the same year, his presence is mentioned in Venice and in Florence. He prepares the cartoon for the "Virgin and St. Anne."

1502 - August 18: Cesare Borgia appoints him military engineer and puts him in charge of inspecting his fortresses in Romagna.

1503 - Returns to Florence and is asked by the Gonfalonier, Pier Soderini, to divert the Arno in order to force Pisa to surrender. He is commissioned to do a fresco of the "Battle of (Anghiari" for the Council Hall in the Palazzo Vecchio. He starts the fresco but is forced to interrupt it because of technical difficulties. Rivalry with Michelangelo.
February-April: First studies on the flight of birds. Failure of his flying machine.

1504 - Meets with other artists to decide where to locate Michelangelo's "David."

1506 - Is summoned by Charier d'Amboise, and leaves Florence for Milan.

1507 - Appointed painter and engineer at the court of Louis XII in France. He paints the "Mona Lisa," the "Bacchus," the "Leda," and "St. John the Baptist."

1508 - Returning to Florence, he continues his scientific studies. In September he is back in Milan working on hydraulics.

1513 - Leaves Milan for Rome and settles in the Belvedere Palace. His patron is Giuliano de Medici, brother of Pope Leo X. At this period his interest is the study of optips.

1515 - Leonardo is present at a meeting between Francis I, King of France, Victor of Marignan, and Pope Leo X. He pursues his studies of anatomy.

1516 - Death of Giuliano de Medici. He accepts the invitation of the King of France and moves into the manor house of Cloux near Amboise.

1517 - Receives the visit of Cardinal Louis of Aragon, to whom he shows his last works.

1518 - Prepares the festivities for the christening of the Dauphin and for the marriage of Lorenzo de Medici.

1519 - April 25. Dictates his will.
May 2: Dies at Cloux and is buried in the cloister of the Church of St. Florentin in Amboise.

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